google buys writely, or, the book is reading you, part 2 03.14.2006, 1:35 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Last week Google bought Upstartle, a small company that created an online word processing program called Writely. Writely is like a stripped-down Microsoft Word, with the crucial difference that it exists entirely online, allowing you to write, edit, publish and store documents (individually or in collaboration with others) on the network without being tied to any particular machine or copy of a program. This evidently confirms the much speculated-about Google office suite with Writely and Gmail as cornerstone, and presumably has Bill Gates shitting bricks .
Back in January, I noted that Google requires you to be logged in with a Google ID to access full page views of copyrighted works in its Book Search service. Which gave me the eerie feeling that the books are reading us: capturing our clickstreams, keywords, zip codes even -- and, of course, all the pages we've traversed. This isn't necessarily a new thing. Amazon has been doing it for a while and has built a sophisticated personalized recommendation system out of it -- a serendipity engine that makes up for some of the lost pleasures of browsing a physical store. There it seems fairly harmless, useful actually, though it depends on who you ask (my mother says it gives her the willies). Gmail is what has me spooked. The constant sprinkle of contextual ads in the margin attaching like barnacles to my bot-scoured correspondences. Google's acquisition of Writely suggests that things will only get spookier.
I've been a webmail user for the past several years, and more recently a blogger (which is a sort of online word processing) but I'm uneasy about what the Writely-Google union portends -- about moving the bulk of my creative output into a surveilled space where the actual content of what I'm working on becomes an asset of the private company that supplies the tools.
Imagine you're writing your opus and ads, drawn from words and themes in your work, are popping up in the periphery. Or the program senses line breaks resembling verse, and you get solicited for publication -- before you've even finished writing -- in one of those suckers' poetry anthologies. Leave the cursor blinking too long on a blank page and it starts advertising cures for writers' block. Copy from a copyrighted source and Writely orders you to cease and desist after matching your text in a unique character string database. Write an essay about terrorists and child pornographers and you find yourself flagged.
Reading and writing migrated to the computer, and now the computer -- all except the basic hardware -- is migrating to the network. We here at the institute talk about this as the dawn of the networked book, and we have open source software in development that will enable the writing of this new sort of born-digital book (online word processing being just part of it). But in many cases, the networked book will live in an increasingly commercial context, tattooed and watermarked (like our clothing) with a dozen bubbly logos and scoured by a million mechanical eyes.
Suddenly, that smarmy little paper clip character always popping up in Microsoft Word doesn't seem quite so bad. Annoying as he is, at least he has an off switch. And at least he's not taking your words and throwing them back at you as advertisements -- re-writing you, as it were. Forgive me if I sound a bit paranoid -- I'm just trying to underscore the privacy issues. Like a frog in a pot of slowly heating water, we don't really notice until it's too late that things are rising to a boil. Then again, being highly adaptive creatures, we'll more likely get accustomed to this softer standard of privacy and learn to withstand the heat -- or simply not be bothered at all.
Posted by ben vershbow on March 14, 2006 1:35 AM
tags: Microsoft, Web2.0, blogging, books, ebook, google, google_book_search, office, privacy, social_software, the_networked_book, word_processing, writely, writing
kim white on March 14, 2006 7:44 AM:
Hi Ben, I've been thinking about this Writely aquisition too. There is a great article on 37 signals, What Google's acquistion of Writely means. It's worth a read, the author believes the Writely move is part of Google's strategy to build a stripped-down anti-Microsoft office suite. The emphasis will be on simplicity and ease of use (industry buzz-words of late, it seems).
Your fears about the (perhaps inevitable) move from desktop applications to web suite, are well founded. Ads popping up while you are writing a poem or novel would certainly be disruptive, but links that pop up while you are writing an article might actually be useful (provided you could turn it off when it starts to bug you). We might start to see authoring platforms that will be customized for the kind of writing we do. Plug ins for novelists, essayists, poets, personal journals, work-a-day to-do lists and so on. And if all else fails, there is always pen and paper.
bowerbird on March 14, 2006 8:47 AM:
> I'm uneasy about what the Writely-Google union portends
> -- about moving the bulk of my creative output into
> a surveilled space where the actual content of
> what I'm working on becomes an asset of
> the private company that supplies the tools.
> Imagine you're writing your opus and ads,
> drawn from words and themes in your work,
> are popping up in the periphery. Or the program
> senses line breaks resembling verse, and you get
> solicited for publication -- before you've even finished
> writing -- in one of those suckers' poetry anthologies.
> Leave the cursor blinking too long on a blank page
> and it starts advertising cures for writers' block.
> Copy from a copyrighted source and Writely
> orders you to cease and desist after matching
> your text in a unique character string database.
> Write an essay about terrorists and child pornographers
> and you find yourself flagged.
wow. it's not often i find myself wishing _i_ had written
what someone else did. but this whole essay is spot-on.
it'd be easy to chalk up writely's purchase by google as
cool toy auctioned to fat wallet, but there's an iceberg of
issues lurking underneath this otherwise-obvious buy...
but there's still time for people to thwart the ad demon!
use your common sense and turn off the adsense, ok?
the money it pays is too small a price for your purity...
filologanoga on March 14, 2006 5:07 PM:
But I am certain you are aware that we do not (yet) have to use Google/Writely, at least not all of the time; we can still choose to do our writing, or some of it, offline. Also --- for all evil Office Suites, there is also the Open Office; should not we expect something similar to happen with web-wordprocessors?
ben vershbow on March 14, 2006 6:12 PM:
Certainly. I am perhaps slightly overstating the privacy concerns to make sure that they're heard. But only slightly. Yes, we can always opt out, but as Bob implied in his latest post about the federal judge ordering Google to surrender data to the DOJ, when it comes to its core service -- search -- no one really does. Google's domination (and Yahoo's and MSN's) of the search arena is so total that no one really asks about a not-for-profit, non-invasive, open source alternative. Similarly, when the online office suite is complete, and people are switching over in droves, it will be hard to resist taking part. Convenience has an undertow effect.
Al on March 16, 2006 11:35 AM:
Are you going to use future Google-Office/Writely and Gmail even if they detect what you are writing and serve highly targeted ads? Take a poll at WiPoll - the internet poll repository for bloggers.